Angela's Reviews > Umbrella

Umbrella by Will Self
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really liked it

Immediately after finishing this book, I delved into its historical inspiration: Dr. Sacks in his medical tale Awakenings, and encephalitis lethargica itself, which these "metal patients" suffer from. With a morbid curiosity in early healthcare and the trial-and-error of its medications, I found myself in something of a rabbit hole.

Umbrella is a morbid curiosity of its own. It follows old, retired Dr. Busner, who reflects on his life and career with the help of flashbacks. They're often not even his own flashbacks, belonging also to his favorite patient—Audrey Death—and her family. But wound together, it tells of familial bonds, regrets and non-regrets, and dedication to a life's work.

Its characters are imperfect and uncomfortably relatable. Busner low-key cares for his patients; he's a terrible husband, but a great doctor. Audrey is a feminist who does her own thing, which also gets her into trouble. Her brothers are flawed yet charming in their own, different ways. These characters have personality.

Oh, it's dense. There are no chapter breaks, and seldom even a paragraph. The POV shifts in the middle of sentences, and dialogue isn't broken out. But for this, it works. I imagine the entire thing to be Busner's own stream of consciousness, how the mind will jump from one thing to the next at random. Seeing he's a psychiatrist, this works remarkably well.

I don't want to discuss the story itself too much. It starts with one thing—Audrey, in her life and childhood—and transforms into something deeper than just "this aging mental patient." There are seemingly irrelevant flashbacks, until they help later to understand the history. There are throwaway page-filler lines, until they come back fifty pages later. It's hard to keep up at first, because the style is so unusual, but you get used to it. And then you realize this was the best and most effective way to tell this story.
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Reading Progress

December 26, 2016 – Shelved
December 26, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
November 5, 2019 – Started Reading
November 21, 2019 – Finished Reading

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